Getting Deep with Little Walleye Dandies
Crappie candy. Bass bonbons. Smallmouth sweets. To ace fishing guide Tony Roach, they’re walleye wafers, and as far as he’s concerned, these snack-size crankbaits might as well be packaged inside shiny foil wrappers, sold in the candy aisle at the grocery store. For all the fish know, modern mini swimmers like the tasty Rapala Ultra Light Shad may in fact be covered in chocolate; run one of these little morsels past a piscatorial sniffer, and you’re putting the bait in grave danger of an imminent crunch.
Which is in large part why Roach and his clients typically sport such goofy grins during the hottest months of walleye season—this being a time when most anglers struggle mightily just to scratch a few fish. During weeklong stretches when others settle for scraps—a fish here and there—Roach is busy feeding his pet walleyes a steady diet of bite-size baits, routinely putting up 20 to 40 fish days. And although walleyes at this time feast heartily on a virtual freshwater smorgasbord, the reality is that as food becomes most abundant, predators often turn increasingly selective about the species and size of their prey.
As Roach explains, by July and August, newly hatched yellow perch, ciscoes and even young of the year sunfish, crappies and bullheads still aren’t any bigger than your pinkie finger. Moreover, just because a given fishery generates massive schools of perch, sunfish, bullheads, shiners and other forage fish, it certainly doesn’t guarantee walleyes will key on them all. If a large school of baitfish doesn’t frequent the depths, water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels preferred by walleyes, they likely won’t often be targeted as prey. On the other hand, if you can identify the forage that appears on your sonar screen in and among larger (walleye) arches, triggering strikes suddenly becomes greatly simplified.
Roach, who spends hundreds of hours on walleye (and forage) factories such as Mille Lacs, Minnesota, believes that the key to impressive summer catches goes beyond matching the hatch. Although this is a critical step, the other half of his success is all about depth control—placing the right baits within the precise levels at which walleyes hover. Put the two together, he says, and your livewell will operate at maximum occupancy all summer long.
Once surface water temperatures reach 70-degrees, which can happen as early as June, Roach (and the walleyes) often evacuate structure in favor of deeper featureless flats or those flats associated with nearby hard-bottom edges. The time to troll has arrived, and although many anglers connect the tactic with boredom and complications, Roach knows better. “If I have to choose between 2 to 3 fish on structure and 20 to 30 trolling, it’s kind of no-brainer.”
Unfortunately, most trollers think they need to employ deep diving plugs or snap-on weight systems to achieve the proper depths of 10 to 35 feet. The problem here is that most deep diving plugs are the larger 4 to 6-inchers that don’t always match the sizes, shapes or species of forage preferred by walleyes. Most anglers assume that snack-size baits, such as the Rapala Ultra Light Shad or new #4 Shad Rap can’t reach those key depths; and even if they could, might not believe that walleyes and other fish actually prefer them to larger summer forage.
Using a simplified system of leadcore-line trolling, Roach can put any bait at any depth, and keep it in the face of walleyes for as long as he wants. What if you could run your favorite #7 Rapala Minnow (Rapala “Original” Minnow) at any depth—10 feet to 50? Impossible, you say? Nonsense. Nothing is so depth-precise as Roach’s simplified leadcore program. And few summertime tactics are as simple to execute, or as deadly.
The deep diving program starts with a good trolling rod. St. Croix’s Eyecon series are elite yet affordable leadcore sticks built around a high-grade graphite-fiberglass blend. Eyecons employ special lightweight yet rock solid aluminum oxide guides with double-coated chrome frames, which guard against leadcore line wear. Their select graphite-glass blanks yield exceptional bite and “lure reading” attributes, key for detecting a fouled lure as well as signaling subtle bites. Another prime leadcore rod is Roach’s new signature series by Wright & McGill.
Arm each rod with a solid line-counter reel, such as a Shimano Tekota 500LC or Daiwa Sealine. In all cases, Roach loads combos first with mono backing, then fills the spool with up to 10 colors of 18-pound test Sufix 832 Lead Core, a smooth, fast-sinking line he calls “the most manageable leadcore you’ll ever use.” To the end of his leadcore, he adds a 6 to 10-foot leader of 10-pound-test Sufix Elite, a lure snap, and finally, one of his sacred mini baits. Lures such as a #4 Shad Rap or Ultra Light Shad, Roach says, contribute mere inches of running depth to his leadcore—a minor factor, but an occasionally critical one.
Roach continues his down-to-earth trolling dissertation: “Speed plus color equals depth,” he explains. “It’s that simple. Trolling at 2-mph gives you 7-feet of depth per color. So if I’m marking lots of arches at 21 feet, I might simply feed out 3 colors of leadcore. If I decide to speed up to 3-mph, the equation gets cut in half—or 3-feet of depth per color.”
On a typical day, with three other anglers in the boat, Roach begins by staggering four rods at four different depths, each placed in a rod holder. Outside rods run shallower than inside lines, and all of them attach to Church Tackle Walleye Boards for maximum horizontal spread. As sonar and bites begin revealing depths of active walleyes, Roach tweaks depths by adjusting leadcore lengths (colors) for each rod. Some days, the majority of strikes occur at 21 feet down over 35, while others, such as sunny calm conditions put walleyes within a foot of bottom, requiring extra colors for a precise, near-bottom presentation. With a simple calculation, anyone can put any lure at any depth at any time.
“See?” Roach quips. “Easy. And I can now run my favorite hatch-matching baits exactly where the walleyes want them. And that includes a classic lure like an original Rapala Minnow, or two of my hottest new favorites—the Ultra Light Shad and #4 Shad Rap. These bite-size baits swim with that masterpiece Rapala wiggle, and trigger bites from the most selective summer walleyes on the planet.”